Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. RNS photo by Amber Arnold

Court rejects atheists' demand to end tax break for clergy housing

(RNS) A federal court of appeals rejected a case brought by an atheist organization that would have declared tax-exempt clergy housing allowances -- often a large chunk of a pastor’s compensation -- unconstitutional.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, one of the few atheist/freethought organization staffed by a majority of women. RNS photo by  Amber Arnold

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. RNS photo by Amber Arnold

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“This is a great victory for fair treatment of churches,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of pastors from several major denominations.

“When a group of atheists tries to cajole the IRS into raising taxes on churches, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows," he said. "The court was right to send them packing.”

Thursday's (Nov. 13) ruling overturns a 2013 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb, who had ruled that the exemption “provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.”

But the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based First Amendment watchdog group that has pursued the case since 2011, vowed to fight on.

“We are disappointed but we are not giving up,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s co-president. “We are so clearly right and the law is so clearly unconstitutional.”

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Crabb's ruling in favor of the atheists because it found Gaylor and FFRF lacked “standing” -- meaning they had no right to sue because the law did not affect them.

Gaylor and Dan Barker, her co-president and an ordained minister, did not seek a housing allowance for themselves under the law.

“Dan took the allowance when he was a minister, but now that he is head of the largest atheist and agnostic organization in the country, he cannot take it,” Gaylor said. “That clearly shows preference for religion.”

Churches routinely designate a portion of a pastor’s salary as a housing allowance. So, for example, a minister who earns an average of $50,000 may receive another third of income, or $16,000, as a tax-free housing allowance, essentially earning $66,000. Having to pay taxes on the additional $16,000 ($4,000 in this case), would mean a 6 percent cut in salary.

The exemption is worth about $700 million per year, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation’s Estimate of Federal Tax Expenditure.

Supporters of the tax break say it helps alleviate government costs for social services by routing that assistance through houses of worship. Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, said "society has tried to relieve the clergy's housing burden because of the tremendous social benefits churches offer the culture."

Most clergy, he said, "despite their exceptional educations, receive only modest salaries."

The Orthodox Union, which represents Orthodox Jews, noted that the housing allowance helps many rabbis live in homes they might not otherwise be able to afford because "congregational rabbis and other clergy members must reside within walking distance to their synagogues" because observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath or most holidays.

Gaylor said FFRF was reconsidering its legal options and would not drop the case. The only venue left to hear the case would be the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are regrouping,” she said.



  1. Why don’t atheists finally come out of the closet and declare that they are as individuals an anti-Christ and stand their ground their?

    seriously it is a duh moment when you see these fanatics attacking Christians without cease.

  2. Religion is a business that sells intangible things to sheep who are suckered into paying. The pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis, imams are making money off of the “god idea.” Why is that they need pay no taxes on the money that goes to pay for their housing? Every other business that actually produces something real and tangible must pay these taxes. It’s outrageous that these pedlars of lies and falsehoods take money from people (many of who can barely afford it) and give them nothing tangible in return, and then don’t even pay their fair share of taxes. You don’t think these men are pedlars of lies? Really if there is only one true religion and it is theirs, that means all the other religions are indeed pedaling lies and getting a tax break for being deceptive. So let’s not reward anyone for pedaling the false hopes of false religions.

    Besides this award to clergy goes against the 1st ammendment of the constitution:
    The Establishment Clause is a limitation placed upon the United States Congress preventing it from passing legislation respecting an establishment of religion. The second prohibition inherent from this specified prohibition is no preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another; an aim desired by the Founding Fathers necessary to accommodate all of the many denominations in the United States.

    The unconstitutional law in question is .S. C. § 107(2), passed by Congress in 1954. The law allows “ministers of the gospel” paid through a housing allowance to exclude that allowance from taxable income. Ministers may, for instance, use the untaxed income to purchase a home, and, in a practice known as “double dipping,” may then deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes. By calling out “ministers of the gospel” the government is doing what the constitution of the U.S. says is forbidden by establishing that only “ministers of the gospel” receive the tax benefit. The government is supposed to stay out of the establishment of a religion, and if this law were written according to the Constitution the same benefits should be extended Wicans and Satanists in addition to Christians.

  3. Is it persecution to sue over unconstitutional religious privilege?

    Don’t expect special treatment, and you won’t be ‘attacked’.

    (What is the IRS definition of a clergyman,
    anyone who gets a $100 ‘internet degree’?)

  4. I have a feeling if this law applied to other non-profits, nobody would think twice about it being “unfair.” It’s only “unfair” because some groups hate those whom it benefits. If Habitat for Humanity benefitted from this law, would atheists be up in arms about it? Let’s call a spade a spade. This is about religion, not constitutionality.

  5. Congratulations! You understand why the law is discriminatory! Now stop supporting it!

  6. How does an ordained minister become the head of an atheist organization? Ordained by whom? Commissioned by which belief system? Why would an atheist choose to continue to present himself as a minister? (Full disclosure: I’m an ordained minister and I was wondering if there might be an atheist organization that might consider offering me a part-time position.)

  7. If the law said that only atheists could avoid paying taxes by applying money they earned to housing payments, people like you would be pretty upset about that, wouldn’t you. Well the law says that only Christians can avoid paying taxes; so why shouldn’t you expect non-Christians to be upset about the law? Hate goes mainly from Christians towards atheists; so you shouldn’t be surprised if a very small percentage of that hate gets bounced back to you. The issue is if anybody on any side of the idea of god debate gets PREFERENTIAL treatment by the government then that is a problem. Our government would do best to stay out of preferring one religious belief over the other.
    The main reason people become atheists is from reading the Bible. Here is why I gave up my Christianity in order to distance myself from the vile filth that is in the Bible:
    •Moses was angry with the officers of the army who returned from battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live? They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and turned the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys and kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.[Num 31:14-18]
    •O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little suckling babes and dashes them against sharp rocks! [Psalm 137:8-9]
    •When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your slaves and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall kill all the men in it with the edge of the sword. Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. [Deuteronomy 20:10-14]
    •Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them permanent slaves for life. [Leviticus 25:44-46]
    •If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property. [Exodus 21:20-21]
    •If you buy a hired servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. [Exodus 21:1-4]
    •All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing [Christian] masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. [1 Timothy 6:1-2]
    •Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. [Titus 2:9-10]
    •Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. [1 Peter 2:18-20 (NRSV)]
    •Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.[Colossians 3:22-24]
    •If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. [Exodus 21:7-10]
    •A slave cannot be corrected by mere words; though he understands, he will not respond.” [Proverbs 29:19]
    •When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you see among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. [Deut 21:10-14]
    •If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her fathers house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. [Deut. 22:20]
    •If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity. [Deuteronomy 25:11-12]
    •If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. [Deuteronomy 22:28-29]
    •Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. [Exodus 31:15]
    •”Anyone who curses or hits his father or mother must be put to death.” [Mthw 15:4; Ex 21:15,17]
    •But nothing that a man owns and devotes to the LORD—whether man or animal or family land may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the LORD. No person so devoted to destruction may be ransomed; he must be put to death. [Leviticus 27:28-29]
    •But if without hostility someone suddenly shoves another or throws something at him unintentionally or, without seeing him, drops a stone on him that could kill him, and he dies, then since he was not his enemy and he did not intend to harm him, the assembly must judge between him and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send him back to the city of refuge to which he fled. He must stay there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled and the avenger of blood finds him outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder. [Numbers 35:22-27 ]
    •I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.’ [Jer. 19:9]
    •Give them, O LORD – what will you give them? Give them wombs that miscarry and breasts that are dry. [Hosea 9:14]
    •If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. [Deuteronomy 13:6-11]
    •Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” [Gen. 9:4-8]
    “And Amaziah said to the man of God, But what shall we do for the hundred talents which I have given to the army of Israel? And the man of God answered, The Lord is able to give thee much more than this. . . . And Amaziah strengthened himself . . . and smote the children of Seir ten thousand. And other ten thousand left alive did the children of Judah carry away captive, and brought them unto the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock, that they all were broken in pieces” (2 Chronicles 25:9-12)

    “Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods. In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully. If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock. Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it. Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God. That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt. Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction. Then the LORD will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you. He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors. “The LORD your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him.” (Deuteronomy 13:13-19 NLT)

  8. My oh my, Oh my goodness housing allowance for pastors/ministers. Tax free? Well, not exactly. Here is a quote from a United Methodist web site concerning Social Security and medicare taxes;…”pastors pay at rate of 15.3% instead of 7.65% paid by lay employees”. The church can pay the 15.3% to the minister but it will count as salary subject to income tax.

    History of this matter began with churches seeking to have “a pastor on the field”. A house, near the church would do. My family and I lived in two pastoriums and believe me, if we could have chosen where we lived, we would not have lived in any one of them. Pastors are often moved by their denominations every few years and buying and selling a house can be a problem.

    There should be a limit to the amount a minister can claim for housing allowance. Yet how could this be accomplished?

    Most of my ministry and that of many other chaplains, I did not receive a housing allowance from the secular organizations for which I worked.

  9. Sigh.

    No one ever seems to consider the impact on minority religions. For large religions this is a minor annoyance. For clergy-free faiths like my own, no effect.

    For small religions that want a parish nearby their church so that they can always have a priest nearby to provide services for their community?? They’re screwed. They won’t be able to afford even the small, dingy houses that most parishes end up being. Big religions can still afford those luxuries, but the small ones, not so much.

  10. “Gaylor said FFRF was reconsidering its legal options and would not drop the case. The only venue left to hear the case would be the U.S. Supreme Court.”

    As Evangelical Christian money has merged with powerful Republicanism the law of the land no longer applies.

    All across the country laws are being disregarded by those in power.
    And we have nobody to blame but those of us who put the dollars into collection baskets in all the churches every Sunday.

    “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
    ― Thomas Jefferson

    For Peace, Religious Freedom, Humanity and The Separation of Church and State

  11. It is a bit ironic that the rational, cute, intelligent, educated and scientific atheists fail once more because of being a minority not because of rationality. If you were black in the Fifties in the South and failed to get to vote because of your skin color you would say that was unfair. Would you call those blacks whiners?

  12. There are many former ministers who are now atheists. See the Clergy Project for more info. There are also many current clergy who support the separation of church and state.
    FFRF is a secular organization, not an atheistic one. You don’t have to be an atheist to join. It promotes secular government, not government that favors atheism.

  13. Christ isn’t real, nor is there any evidence for one outside of the bible. Why would we declare ourselves anti to something that doesn’t exist? That doesn’t make any sense. These aren’t attacks on Christians, they are defenses of the constitution. Christians are the ones constantly attacking and attempting to force their woo on the rest of us. Tax breaks for woo speakers shouldn’t exist. Get a job like everyone else and stop living off the community like a parasite.

  14. There is nothing rational about atheism.

    People don’t choose their race but they choose their belief system. Apples and oranges.

  15. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is trying to protect religious freedoms, and keep the government from favoring or inhibiting religion… and religious people are the ones getting mad? Oh that’s right, because it’s not about religious practice, it’s about making money.

  16. @John,

    The Separation of Church and State is not designed or intended for the promotion of Atheism.

    The Establishment Clause is designed to protect the freedoms of all religions – INCLUDING CHRISTIANITY.

    I donate every year.

  17. As an Atheist I don’t believe that a parsonage exemption is necessarily wrong. But does someone like Joel Osteen deserve tax-exemption on a multimillion dollar home?

  18. Since we are talking about tax law, how hard is it to set a cap based on income for the tax exemption? Who says this has to be an all or nothing situation.

    It would be a line item in a barely reported congressional committee. Given the abuses by clergy of major religious groups, and the wide level of latitude given to taxation power, it would be easy to justify.

  19. THIS world would be so much better with out Atheism .Which always is trying to do evil to others that are not Atheists

  20. Actually, there is a cap of sorts. The allowance cannot exceed the fair market rental value of the property, plus utilities. I suspect those multi-million dollar homes some cite are made possible by clever accounting practices (or fraud).
    The housing allowance system is similar to the one used by our military and was established for pretty much the same reasons.

  21. Really?…

    so, it isn’t better for a Militant Islamist
    to change his mind about Allah, quit religion and become an Atheist?

    I doubt you meant that.

  22. Good question.

    Joel Osteen and others like him are just motivational speakers with Bibles.
    What is to stop a Christian Bank or a Christian Hospital from skipping tax responsibilities?

    Religion needs to be put back in the churches and into people’s homes. It has no business spreading out like this into other areas of culture.

    Are people losing their minds?

    For Peace, Civility and the Separation of Church and State

  23. What is rational about believing crackers turn into flesh and blood once you cast a magic spell over them?

    You have examined none of the claims about god – otherwise you would laugh at it like everyone else does.

  24. Yes poor discriminated agaist Christians. It’s terible how you only get to cram your bronze age views down our throats for the last forever in the US. Here is the fact separation of church and state means no special treatment for any religion. This case would have never happened had it been Muslim, Hindu, or anything not Christian because picking up huge amounts of tax free money from ones employer is call fraud.

  25. As always your thinking is embarrassing. I thought atheists valued intelligence?

  26. @Dave V,

    “….fanatics attacking Christians without cease.”

    All we are asking is for Christians
    to stop projecting their theories onto other people.

    “The only remedy for homosexuals is that they be put to DEATH..”
    Tennessee Megachurch
    September 4, 2014

    Christians tell themselves one of the biggest lies ever invented: This is all about love.

    Keep your religious nightmares to yourself and in your church – and out of our public laws!

    For Peace, Civility and the Separation of Church and State
    Question the claims. Question Authority.

  27. “These aren’t attacks on Christians, they are defenses of the constitution.”

    But if the Constitution cannot be protected from the Christian Right Wing and the laws favoring religionists, we secularists must speak up more loudly against these corrupting theories of religion.

    It should not be forgotten that the Bible is nonsense. And these god beliefs deserve absolutely no respect.

  28. You were ordained by another person. You demonstrated your desire to reap rewards by convincing others to give you money for your time.Your commission allows you to solicit and retain money taken from others. You don’t need another job. You just have to get better at the one you have.

  29. The FFRF is a very frightening group. Don’t believe them! They are trying to get as many members as possible so that they can succeed in removing religious freedom. I had an encounter with them and something needs to be done. We can’t keep allowing them to attack our towns, schools and beliefs. I quake in my shoes just thinking about what atheist could do to our country if they are not stopped.

  30. Well my goodness, the taxpayer has been offering subsidies for all manner of professions. Check into the benefits congressional people get. Why…? The earliest elected leaders to congress had to have traveled by horse and carriage to get the halls of congress. Huge expense just to meet for congressional meetings. Voila! The housing allowance was provided.

    As far as I know Dan’s not going after the military housing allowance for military Chaplains, but then of course, I don’t believe that Dan ever served a day sacrificing anything for his country. But I do believe brother Darrel served in the Marine Corps.

    Dan argues that he used this allowance when he practiced as a minister, but can’t do so now. Where was his principled stand then? How much money does his non-profit send to Uncle Sam? Dan Barker is not the standard of what other people must submit to. The facts are that most people still believe in God. Anyone who crosses Dan gets a threatening letter from his lawyers. Take responsibility for your own “Don’t quote me Bro”! I suggest others look at the YouTube video by that title. What a glimpse at integrity.

    The FFRF is quite simply a bully that extorts our educational institutes. They are quite aware that most school districts don’t have the funds to exhaust in court litigation because if they do… imagine, students suffer. I’m so glad for the Liberty Institute.

    But in any case, their real motives are clear. They aren’t just looking for what they call constitutional fairness and justice, they are looking to belittle people who have faith. Attack after attack. Here is the latest (as far as I can tell) offering from Dan’s wife: “Let’s hear it for biblical blasphemy!” Then there are Dan’s musical offerings that mock Christian’s traditional music that is most sung by children. Dan, you once wrote a lovely musical “Mary had a Little Lamb” and now you portray “Yes, Jesus loves me” with disdain. Mockery is his stock and trade.

    Here we see the truth of their work and repeated attempts to belittle people of faith…according to their website they have more than 20,000 members. 30+ years of bullying people. What a legacy!

  31. Tell me John, if the FFRF is only a secular organization, why do spend so much time mocking religion?

  32. This is a fair question. From Ed Young and Steven Furtick, to the other money changers, this is a despicable excess. They are predators who are beyond shameful.

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